Talk of Occupation Unsettles Interfaith Meet

An Arab sheikh's suggestion that religious leaders should speak out against Israeli occupation appeared to cause some discomfort yesterday at an otherwise conciliatory conference on Jewish and Muslim interfaith dialogue in which Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron participated.

"Are we ready to wholeheartedly say that the occupation is also an enemy we have to fight?" asked Sheikh Ibrahim Tsartsur, director of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement, which works with Israeli Arabs, at the conference.

Tsartsur praised British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks for criticizing Israeli actions in the territories, calling his recent interview with The Guardian last week "a bit of light at the end of the tunnel."

Tsartsur opened his speech by criticizing yesterday's High Court of Justice decision to allow the army to relocate two family members of a terrorist who had aided him in carrying out attacks.

He also compared Jews' reaction to the Holocaust to Palestinian reaction to Israel, saying that communal suffering has led both peoples to question their faith. "When there is no justice, at the end of the day it can shake the foundations of belief, even in God," he said.

Tsartsur also made comments that were more in line with the overall tone of outreach that pervaded the conference, sponsored by the Mosaic Center for social and religious research and held at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva. He unequivocally condemned the killing of innocent people, saying, "Any type of terror whose aim is to spill the blood of innocents is condemned by all the religions, and especially Islam." He said Mohammed has deemed such an act to be "a crime against Islam and a crime against God himself."

Bakshi Doron said politics has no place at a dialogue between religious leaders. Difficult issues such as the role of occupation "belong more to the politicians," he said. "We come here to attack the issue from a totally different approach: What does God want from us?"

Both Bakshi Doron and Tsartsur spoke about the commonality of Islam and Judaism. "Both religions have the concept of a God full of mercy," said Bakshi Doron, adding, "He certainly wants us to be merciful."

The religious sectors are vital to any negotiations, said Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior. Any peace process is bound to fail if it does not include the "traditional religious element" from both sides of the conflict, he said, because otherwise Muslim and Jewish religious sectors will suspect their values are not being taken into consideration. "We didn't succeed because that element was not part of the process," he said.